By Mary Jo Bang
Copyright © 2012 Mary Jo Bang
All right reserved.
You know the story: Heaven, but not yet. First, you have to come to your senses in a dark forest and realize you've strayed from the path. You have to lose hope, then find something bright that renews it. Suddenly, here comes a trio of savage animals—a leopard, a lion, a she-wolf; you relinquish the little hope you had. When you decide you can't go on alone, there's the task of distinguishing a reliable guide from a mirage. Virgil consoles you by saying even animals twitch in fear when they see shadows in their nightmares. The Roman poet explains that Beatrice, the love of your life, interceded when she learned that you were lost; she came down to him in Limbo and begged him to save you. She's now one with the deity you worship. Aloft in His castle, alongside other paragons of purity and beauty, she keeps one ear tuned to a heavenly choir that sings Holy-Holy-Holy.
So, save me, you say. And Virgil says, paradoxically the best way out is by going deeper in. He makes you a promise: follow him into the misery-making depths of Hell and, eventually, the door of Paradise will fall open and just like that, you'll be welcomed in. You wonder if that's possible. Somehow he convinces you and when he says, "Let us go now," it all seems feasible and, as if by a force outside you, you feel your feet move. You're on your way to a place no one alive has ever seen outside imagination.
You come to a gate; above it a sign says, more or less: this threshold marks the end of hope. These words seem cruelly calculated to terrify. And you are terrified except that Virgil reminds you it's only your cowardice you have to forfeit, the very cowardice you've come to rely upon. You're in the entrance hall of Hell itself, facing an object lesson of the nth degree. The souls you see and hear are those who refused to stand up and instead stood by and allowed evil to enact its awful malice. Here they pay the price. They're not sent to a lower level because the relative benignity of their iniquity would make those who are worse gloat that they'd been truly bad, not just insipid vacillators. Their sentence isn't pretty: they're set upon by wasps that sting like guilt pricks the conscience—unremittingly. He says they're not worth looking at but you can't stop yourself. Even here, they don't take a stand but steadily run after a flapping banner. There are so many of them.
On a nearby shore, a crowd waits for a boat. Charon arrives and berates you; the crowd seems eager to leave. The ground shakes, the wind blows, there's a bright crimson flash like lightning seen through a faded stage curtain. It's too much. Much too much. You fall into a faint. You wake to thunder and a tremor, the sighs of souls in Limbo. Here you see those who never had a chance to make amends because they lived so long ago. There's a special area for those who did great things on Earth: Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan and the like. Missing is the shade of Adam, who began us, and Abraham, Abel, Noah, and Rachel and all those lifted up and out when Christ descended to harrow Hell. You realize this is the first circle. And it is circular, and wide, and green with enameled grass, and dim-lit and quiet except for that ever-present, monotonous hum of regret for the fact that Paradise will never be.
The first circle is nothing like the second, which is where you go next. You meet Minos, infallible judge and jury of one; he indicates the sentence for the self-confessed by wrapping his tail around his torso to match the number of the circle where the sentence will be served. When he sees you, he quips, "Just because the door is open, doesn't mean that you can leave." It reminds you of a song. Inside the circle, the sounds are horrendous and a wind bashes the souls about, overwhelming them, as lust once did their reason. You see two locked in an embrace and wonder why. They come by and tell their sad-love story. They're very sympathetic. Which leaves you breathlessly heartbroken. And now for the second time, you're aware of your fragility as the world fades away.
When you come to, you're somewhere else: circle three, which is smaller than two, the way two was smaller than one. Every circle ever-smaller, each one farther down, each one more distant from the love above. At the entrance to the third, you meet three-headed Cerberus, dog like and ravenous, barking up a storm in a constant downpour of sewer water frozen into sheets of sleet. This is the circle of gluttons and you meet one; by coincidence, this little piggy is from your city. You ask whether his second sight allows him to know what the future holds for that place. He says what's already a viper's nest will soon be only more so.
Now, on to circle four where Plutus, symbol of envy and demigod of worldly goods, stands guard. He's like wealth itself, a puffed-up paper bag full of hot air that collapses under the weight of Virgil's insults, and the reminder that someone wants you here, or else you wouldn't be. Here you see two sets of sinners: on one side, lavish spenders; on the other, their grasping penny-pinching alter egos. They engage in a nonstop contest where each side expends every ounce of energy pushing weights across the circle that's shaped like fortune's wheel. When the two groups meet midway, they crash, like two colliding shopping carts full of useless bric-a-brac; they then return and start again. You notice the intemperate clergy are here; they're tonsured, as if they've even spent the hair from off their heads.
From there, you follow a dark stream downhill until it opens out to become the marsh of Styx. This is circle five, for the lifelong angry. Mud-covered souls gnaw at one another the way fury once gnawed them from inside out. And Virgil says, furthermore, underneath the pond's surface are sad-face pouters, who never had a good word or a pleasant thought to offer. Timelessly, through a mouthful of mud, they gurgle up a dirge.
You leave five, but before you reach six, you see far-off lights flickering at the top of a tower. The signal gets returned and suddenly a boat brings Phlegyas, who's enraged. You get in his boat, which sinks under your weight, a clear indication that you're not dead yet. When you see one soul ripped limb from limb by a mob of angry others, you understand how gratifying it feels to get a glimpse of justice.
In the distance, you see circle six—the glowing city of Dis, neon in the perpetual night. At the front door, a thousand fallen angels take offense that you've come, alive, to where only the dead are welcome. Virgil tries and fails to negotiate your entrance. And you? You're in a state of untold terror, which makes the forest in which you were lost seem like a patch of trees behind a summerhouse. Virgil says someone is coming to save you. Really?
You're nervous now and wonder, does he really know the way? He says he does. He says he was down here long ago looking for a soul that a sorceress wanted to stuff back into a body. But you're no longer listening. Your eyes are on three creatures at the top of the wall; they have serpents on their heads instead of hair; they wear snaky belts and bracelets, and scream and cry and slap themselves. These three, the Erinyes, threaten to call down Medusa to turn you into you a concrete block and leave you here, at the base of Hell's dark ever-wall.
And now, the wind rises and the Heaven-sent messenger that Virgil promised moments ago strides toward you. He's haughty and annoyed by this lowly task. He taps a wand; the gate glides open. One tirade later, he turns on his heel and is back to Heaven. He's put an end to angelic resistance and now you're allowed in. All around you are coffins and sarcophagi, out of which are emanating cries of agony. These are the tombs of heretics, grouped by type, each tomb of torment heated by an open fire exquisitely adjusted to match the contents of the tomb.
Among the Epicureans you meet pure hubris in the form of Farinata. He sent your people into exile not once but twice, and tells you so; you explain your people came back and took their turn at scattering his. In the same tomb, you see the father of a friend who wants to know, does his son still see the light of day? Shouldn't the father know? But no, the dead can only know what's distant, not what's about to be or in the recent past. Farinata gives you a prophecy: in fewer than six years, you'll discover for yourself how hard the art of exile is to master. Virgil says sweet Beatrice, when you finally reach her, will make sense of this prediction.
As you make your way around the bank, you smell an August garbage strike. It takes some time to acclimate and while you wait, Virgil draws a diagram of what you'll find below. Circle seven, for the violent, he says, is sub divided into three: the first, for those who killed, maimed, destroyed, or plundered; the second, for suicides; the third, for blasphemers and rule-breakers who violently scorned God. Circle eight is divided into ten concentric crevices, each for a type of fraud distinctly punished in a manner that befits it. Circle nine has four parts, each based on the form betrayal takes. In this last of the four, the inner circle within the circle, Satan sits. You think you're prepared, but in the event, there's always a measure of bewilderment. Always a jolt of terror when your eyes misread the dark.
You arrive at circle seven by climbing down the remnants of a landslide caused by an earthquake that followed the death of Christ. But first you have a face-off with the Minotaur of Crete. On your way down, a centaur, arrow at the ready, calls across, "Are you coming down to get your fair share of abuse?" But you're not there for that. Virgil asks the one called Chiron for a centaur to carry you across the river of boiling blood; there, the violent suffer the same degree of misery they once inflicted. A centaur carries you across and plays the part of a tour guide, pointing out the infamous.
You find yourself in the middle ring of circle seven, a gigantic grove of thorn trees with spirits trapped inside the branches. These are the suicides; they cry endlessly in their mini-prisons, regretting the moment they gave up hope and hurt themselves. The wood then ends in a barren desert where a rain of fire falls nonstop. This is the last ring of seven. You find the man whose books inspired you there, among the others. It was he who gave you a model for writing that might just make you immortal. Here, the fire of passion scars the skin and causes constant crying. You meet some from your city; they ask how things are there and you tell them, easy wealth has undermined the fabric of civility. They applaud you for speaking with such candor.
You would leave here, but how? The waterfall that cascades down the sheer rock drop makes a roar that deafens. Virgil calls up Geryon, an image of fraud with the face of an affable man, but whose body is pure serpent. Those two hatch a plan, while you talk to a group of lenders who charged excessive interest rates. You and your guide descend to circle eight on the massive back of Geryon, with the memory of Icarus and his melting wings foremost in your mind. You dismount at Malebolge, circle eight's set of ten stone valleys ever widening out. Stone ridges bridge the crevices—one to two, two to three, et cetera, et cetera—each a level lower and one step closer to Satan's icy pit. You make your way down the ridge, which is jagged and steep. Along the way, you see how plastic fraud is as it assumes its many forms.
In the first crevice, the sinners form two separate rings—one moving with the clock, the other counterclockwise—in one, pimps and panderers; in the other, date- rape and seducer types. All feel the lash of a devil's whip. In the second crevice, drooling flatterers are sunk in a sea of excrement. In the third, simonists who sold church favors are stuck head-down in baptism fonts, their kicking feet on fire. In the fourth, seers and fortune-tellers walk backward, their faces now above their backs and bums—the cost of looking too far forward. The fifth is a tar pit where sadistic devils pass gas and poke down grafters. Those who were once on the take now take the tines of a devil's fork.
And now, disturbing news. The ridge that forms the walkway is broken here, destroyed by the selfsame quake that caused the landslide. A squad of ten devils is selected to escort you to the point where the ridge continues. Or so they say. On the way, they get tricked by a sinner and you leave them in a fix. You can't help thinking you'll get blamed for this. It's true, they do run after you but Virgil saves the day by sliding down a slope into crevice six, where religious hypocrites wear hooded monks' cloaks made of lead gilded with gold paint. Because they're hypocrites, what's outside doesn't match what's within. They lumber along under the weight of their sin.
In crevice seven, thieves are robbed of their bodies by snakes, then made to slither along the night like bottom. Crevice eight houses a pit of deceivers hidden now in flames, as they once concealed their nefariousness. Crevice nine holds those who sowed seeds of discord and religious schism. One has his severed head in his hand and swings it like a lantern. In him, two are one and one is two; his punishment is perfect. At last you come to cloister ten where you meet and talk to falsifiers like counterfeiters and impersonators. Each has been turned into something else; each wants what it now can't have. They bitterly goad one another. And you get scolded for listening to bickering, and liking it too much.
And now you're about to see circle nine, where fraud and violence merge. Towering above the bordering wall, you see the tops of giants—each a lesson in what happens when might marries a monster. One is tame enough to take you and Virgil in his hand and hand you down. Now you're on the floor of the horrid pit that bears the weight of Earth above. And you're wondering again, as you have at every turn, how do you write the story of this place? Who would believe the horror? What does a reader need to know if he or she has never been there? What's the text equivalent of death metal music? What can you say to save someone from grief?
You cross Caina, the outer rim of Cocytus, where the floor is ice, thicker than a frozen lake-top in deadest winter. The souls are frozen in it, heads bowed, teeth miming a machine-gun clatter. Brother-murderers. Fatherkillers. Those with a hand in a daughter's death. A vast evil cousinage sitting in an ice tray. Caina gives way to Antenora where, unthinkingly, your foot hits a sinner's head. At least you think it was unthinkingly. He was a backstabbing double- crosser who doesn't wish to be remembered. In life, some were more ruthless than others; some would kill a son and set the parent up to watch. They pay here for their treachery.
Antenora cedes to Ptolomea. Here too, a sea of frozen souls, but with their heads bent back: to cry is to suffer more. Their tears freeze, like ice on a ledge in the heart of nuclear winter, then work their way back up under the lids and fill out the sockets. Now the souls are painfully blind, as they were once blind to the suffering they brought their friends and guests. A soul is sometimes sent here to begin its sentence early, leaving the body to walk on Earth—zombie like, a living dead, Iron Maiden's Eddie the Head.
As you walk on, you feel a breeze and see beneath your feet souls submerged in ice like broken bits of straw in glass. Ahead is three-faced Satan: one face a pasty white, one black, one red. His three sets of moving wings create a constant downdraft; the cold air keeps the ice intact. His six eyes cry; in each mouth, hammered by his teeth, a sinner writhes in agony: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius—the latter's back is a mass of missing skin. To witness this feels formal, as if you've almost ceased to be. Not yet dead but not alive. Mind and body caught mid motion in the unfathomable.
There's nothing more to learn here. Virgil picks you up and lowers the two of you down Satan's ladder- legs, turning mid-Earth to push against gravity up toward the opposing pole. When you arrive at the other side you wonder: How can it be that you are where you are? This is what guides are for. To explain, and to point out a possible path that will take you from the oubliette in Hell's basement to an opening where you can look out and see the convulsive beauty of distant stars.
Excerpted from Inferno by Mary Jo Bang Copyright © 2012 by Mary Jo Bang. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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